Before the universe began.

The bowler beats the bat and the ball hits the batsman’s pad.  There is a loud appeal and the umpire calls for ‘hawkeye’ to predict where the ball was going. Hawkeye is a system that tracks the flight of the ball and predicts, using the laws of physics, where the ball would have gone if the batsman’s pad had not got in the way.  The batsman’s innings depends on the prediction.Those same laws of physics and tracked trajectory of the ball can be run in reverse, to predict where the ball came from.  The prediction will be completely accurate back until the point when the ball left the bowler’s hand.  The prediction will extrapolate back a series of parabolas, to infinity.

It’s common sense.  Hawkeye makes valid predictions where the assumptions included in the model are correct.  But where the assumptions break down, the prediction will be wrong.  So it is with all science.  Where assumptions break down then science will be wrong.  We test our assumptions where we have data – back as far almost as the beginning of the universe, but we cannot test beyond there.  And so although science can make predictions of what was before the beginning of the universe, it would be wrong to believe them.  We have to accept that we don’t know, and can never know whether there was a ‘bowler’ or whether the ball came bouncing from infinity…

The headline of the following and similar articles are therefore completely misleading

Stephen Hawking Claims To Know What Happened Before The Big Bang

although the text is more accurate: “Hawking had previously said in one of his lectures that the events that occurred before the Big Bang have no consequences that can be observed, therefore they are not defined because there is no way to measure what happened…….  Even the amount of matter in the universe can be different to what it was before the Big Bang, as the Law of Conservation of Matter, will break down at the Big Bang.”  Hawking recognised that the laws of physics ‘change’ …. allowing the existence of the ‘bowler’.

 

 

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Jesus teaching on workers pay

Jesus taught about the kingdom of God. In one example a wealthy man ensured that the workers all received enough pay for their needs, although it cost him more than it needed to. He knew that he would still have sufficient for himself.

If you are wealthy then this might be a good example to follow.

And if you are a worker, take heed too: if you are lucky enough to have a job, your needs are no different from the one who doesn’t.

The story is recorded in Matthew 20:

“For the Kingdom of Heaven is like the landowner who went out early one morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay the normal daily wage and sent them out to work.

“At nine o’clock in the morning he was passing through the marketplace and saw some people standing around doing nothing. So he hired them, telling them he would pay them whatever was right at the end of the day. So they went to work in the vineyard. At noon and again at three o’clock he did the same thing.

“At five o’clock that afternoon he was in town again and saw some more people standing around. He asked them, ‘Why haven’t you been working today?’

“They replied, ‘Because no one hired us.’

“The landowner told them, ‘Then go out and join the others in my vineyard.’

“That evening he told the foreman to call the workers in and pay them, beginning with the last workers first. When those hired at five o’clock were paid, each received a full day’s wage. 10 When those hired first came to get their pay, they assumed they would receive more. But they, too, were paid a day’s wage. 11 When they received their pay, they protested to the owner, 12 ‘Those people worked only one hour, and yet you’ve paid them just as much as you paid us who worked all day in the scorching heat.’

13 “He answered one of them, ‘Friend, I haven’t been unfair! Didn’t you agree to work all day for the usual wage? 14 Take your money and go. I wanted to pay this last worker the same as you. 15 Is it against the law for me to do what I want with my money? Should you be jealous because I am kind to others?’

16 “So those who are last now will be first then, and those who are first will be last.”

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Excerpt from The Big Picture: “Am I Open Minded?”

As we start out ask yourself the question, “Am I open minded, ready to follow where evidence leads, with no preconceptions?”

Now I’m sure you’ve answered “yes” because none of us would like to admit otherwise, but actually, it may be impossible to start any investigation without preconceptions.   They are the motivation behind many investigations … the desire to obtain proof of what we already think about something.

Preconceptions are almost inherent in the scientific approach – we think of a theory, and then we investigate to test it.  If we are honest, we will admit that we like our theories and feel good when they are proved right.

Perhaps there is one preconception that I will allow at this stage; that each one of us matters. I matter. You matter.  Our friends and neighbours all matter.  If we don’t matter then there is no point in anything and it’s best not to think any deeper.  That road leads to despair.

If we are going to explore these questions fully we are going to have to consider questions of God, science, reason, history and more.  We are going to have to include objective data and subjective experience; objectivity keeps us from being deluded but it is the subjective that really matters to us.

Even if we try to think about an issue with an open mind, we nevertheless carry many assumptions that we don’t realise.  Speaking personally, my scientific education and engineering career have both instilled a basic assumption of materialism: the fabric of the universe is all there is.  When people talk about a spiritual dimension, is it just another material dimension that we can’t see?  And if there is a spiritual dimension, how can it interact with the physical universe?  Or if there isn’t a separate spiritual dimension then where does God exist?  These are not straightforward questions, but I’ve come to realise that they are valid.   I have had to challenge a lot of what I took simply as common sense and to open my mind to new possibilities.

It can be difficult to refresh our way of thinking, particularly if we are surrounded by others who have a similar outlook to ourselves.  In a recent discussion on European history with a university student he mentioned that such and such country was fascist.  It led me to ask what it is that makes the people there fascist.  Is it genetically programmed into each individual there?  If you took any one of them and brought them up elsewhere would they be fascist?  I think it likely that they wouldn’t.  They are fascist because everyone around them is fascist.  They are unconsciously trained to be fascists.

So what are we doing in our country?  What are we training ourselves to think like?  What assumptions do we hold, and are they valid?  Books such as The Science Delusion by Rupert Sheldrake[i] challenge many of the assumptions of the day.  He asks us to challenge our scientific dogmas, our blind assumptions.  Even if we end up thinking the same as we did before, we have a more solid basis for our beliefs if we go through the process of challenging our assumptions.

Implications

Whenever anyone is presenting a case we might ask ourselves, “If I were to accept what is being presented and agree with the author, what would be the implications for me?  How willing would I be to accept those implications?  Do I need to understand the implications before I start?”

Many parents choose not to have their babies tested for Down’s syndrome because they would not be willing to accept a termination of the pregnancy and so feel that there is no point in knowing before the child is born.  Others might need to understand all the implications before deciding; how accurate is the test, and what are the options available if the child tests positive? Still others might insist that they must have the test because they are not prepared to risk having a child with Down’s syndrome and would terminate the pregnancy if that were shown to be likely by the test.

This is a book that deals with questions of God.  This may worry some people. If they were to be convinced that God is real they would have to become the sort of bigoted judgemental fanatic that represents the worst face of religion.  They may think that they would need to join a religion and accept all that they are told without thinking, and be associated with all the religious atrocities of the past. Or that they will have to give up their Sunday morning lie-in and trot off to church with a bunch of hypocrites. If these thoughts resonate with you, take courage – it doesn’t have to be like that.

Fear

People can be frightened by the prospect of change, but often change is beneficial.  For instance, when redundancies are announced, there is a lot of fear in the workforce.  Some may have been in the same job for thirty years, and they simply don’t know anything else – how will they cope if they have to find another job?  And yet being forced to change jobs can be a most liberating and life-changing experience.  I recall hearing a report that those who remain behind after a round of redundancies are likely to be more stressed than those who have been made redundant.  They are still in the same job, but with increased fear of losing it and still in fear of change, whereas those who have left are now busy rebuilding their new lives and careers.  That’s not to say it’s easy to change, but a change in a job or a worldview can be very liberating.

Peer Pressure

Perhaps we don’t want to change our views because of what others might think of us.  We’ve probably aired our opinions sufficiently to our friends that any major change would be an embarrassment.   Or perhaps we live or work in a culture where there is only one accepted way of thinking.  We might find that we have to live a double life, adopting one attitude at work and another in private.  For instance, to progress a career as a scientist it is necessary to publish papers and learned articles.  Such articles are subject to peer review.  This process is in place to ensure that sound scientific information is published and that mistakes do not get propagated.  But the process inherently risks that only those papers that conform to the present scientific way of thinking are published.  If a scientist becomes too free thinking, then the peer review process may prevent his papers being published and his career may come to a grinding halt.  Reputation is essential, and doing anything that might lose it is risky.

An ambitious scientist may be fearful of embracing religion.  Religion allows that God might interfere with the workings of the world.  That might mean that the universe is not completely predictable, which would seem to undermine the basis of all the work of science.  Allowing the existence of God might mean that it will be impossible to have a complete scientific theory that predicts everything – which is challenging to anyone who invests their life in seeking it.

Similarly, in religious circles it can be damaging not only to one’s career but also to one’s life to challenge the current way of thinking.  Men and women have been labelled heretics and have been burnt at the stake for holding different religious beliefs.

Religious people may have a deep fear of science.  Apart from the vocal assertions made by some atheists that science has done away with God, there can be fear that science might undermine or even disprove certain traditions or beliefs that the given religion may hold dear, or even sacred.  A religious man may have invested so much in his religion that he’s lost the desire, and maybe even the ability, to be open to learning that some of what he’s been taught is incorrect.  Yet surely a truly godly man would be desperate to be corrected if he were misunderstanding God?  In her book Awesome God, Sara Maitland encourages religious people to embrace what can be learned from science:

Start with “God exists” and everything we can learn will tell us more about God.[ii]

So returning to the question, “Am I open minded, ready to follow where evidence leads, with no preconceptions?” we can see that it is almost impossible not to have preconceptions or preconditions.  A first step in challenging them is to consider how we came to believe them in the first place. How did we come to really know what we know?

[i] Rupert Sheldrake: The Science Delusion ISBN 978-1444727944

[ii] Sara Maitland: Awesome God: Creation, Commitment and Joy ISBN: 978-0281054190

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Foreword to The Big Picture

Scientific discovery has brought material benefits and physical comfort to mankind.  The predictability of matter leads us to assume that it behaves according to fixed laws, and this belief has led engineers to develop tools and machinery to manipulate the environment, doctors to develop cures for many diseases, and farmers to grow crops with greatly increased yields.  Many of the scourges of previous times have been overcome leading, in the Western world at least, to longer lifetimes and better health.  However, this has also led to the belief that everything is predictable and controllable. If anything goes wrong (by which we mean it causes us distress or discomfort) then it must be fixable, and if it hasn’t been fixed it must be someone else’s fault.

Personal rights have grown, but personal responsibility has diminished.  Laws to protect the weak have bred the belief that it is the state’s job and not our individual duty to help out those less fortunate than ourselves.  Mechanisation that was supposed to give more leisure time has led to lost jobs and loss of purpose.  Competition and the shrinking of the geographical world has meant that there is someone, somewhere who will work harder or longer hours than we do, and the pressure grows to produce more for less.  The availability of loans means that goods can be obtained now if we promise to pay later.  To pay the loan we need a job.  Fear of job loss drives us to work longer hours and accept less pay. The purpose of life becomes to produce.  The mechanism which fuels demand and production is the economy.  The economy becomes the measure of the health of a nation.

Is that what it’s all about?

Is my value simply what I can produce?

Am I measured just by what I can earn?

If I retain the worldview that the economy is king then the implication is yes, but that doesn’t feel right.  I want to be valued and loved as a person.  I want a worldview that speaks to my heart and my mind and not just my wallet, and I want it to be based on sound thinking and evidence.

Science has brought great technological and medical benefits to mankind; cars, televisions, fridges, telephones, electricity and so on.  But science has also brought guns and bullets, pollution, global drug trafficking and job losses.  Science seems to dominate my life, telling me what I should or shouldn’t do to keep healthy, avoid risk and live longer, but it doesn’t tell me why I would want to live longer.  Science doesn’t give any purpose to my life.

Religion offers purpose, but it too seems to want to control me and dominate me.  Religion has been used as justification for many great atrocities: the Spanish Inquisition, child sacrifices, the Crusades.  Religious people seem to want to tell me how to behave, and to judge and criticise me, claiming to represent the will of God.

I want to know the truth.  I want to know what science can tell me about how the universe works, and perhaps where I came from.  I want the benefits that science can bring, but not at the cost of becoming a slave to its dictates.  I want to know why I am here, what my purpose in life is, or even if there is one.  If there is a God I want to know what He thinks. I want the benefit of knowing that I have a purpose, but not at the cost of becoming a slave to rules from another human being.

And so I investigate, weigh up evidence in all forms and seek a holistic worldview that works.  I have explored what we know from the physical and biological sciences, and I have researched historical evidence for God. I have tested what is actually known, and what is speculation, extrapolation or personal opinion and rhetoric.

This book presents my conclusions, and some of the evidence that brought me to draw them.  I offer what I believe is a consistent, healthy and constructive worldview based on sound evidence.  I’ve called it Minimalist Christianity.  Whether you agree with my conclusion or not, I hope that many of the myths that currently inhibit so many of us will have been weakened or dispelled.  I hope that a step can be taken towards finding purpose and experiencing life in abundance.

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The trampled poppy

It is 14th November 2018, just three days after the Remembrance Sunday where we promise not to forget the loss of lives in the 1914-18 and other wars.

I am woken by Radio 3:

“The headlines today …

  • Half of the nation of Yemen is on the verge of starvation due to war.
  • Melania Trump is upset at where she sat on an aircraft.

And now some Mozart.”

Unusually I have noticed the incongruity and am prompted to draw attention to it in a blog post.  Normally, like you, I would just get on with my day, not sparing another thought to the fact that half of a nation is on the verge of starvation.

It seems that the poppies have already been trampled in the dirt.

How can any of us claim to be without sin?  Isn’t the correct response to our  hard-heartedness that we humbly admit that we are grossly selfish and undeserving?

Yet despite this, we are still given the opportunity to live purposeful lives.  We believe there is some purpose in life, and in death; we have just remembered millions of deaths.  And if there is eternal life we want part of it.

On that day when we die and are asked whether we have led a good enough life to deserve heaven, none of us can say yes. None of us.  Yet heaven will be full.  It will be full because of the person who we celebrate on another day of remembrance – Christmas Day.

Jesus Christ, son of God, crucified.  A single act in history which allows anyone who in their hearts wishes for it to repent and receive forgiveness.  Our active and passive selfish, greedy, hard-hearted and unloving actions deserve death, but we are allowed eternal life because of that one great sacrifice made on our behalf.  It is our choice – death, or humble acceptance of the sacrifice that Jesus made on the cross and life. To trample the cross, or to embrace it.

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The end of sacrifice

As we approach the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day at the end of the War to end all Wars, we remember the sacrifice of so many.

The soldiers did not only make the sacrifice, they were the sacrifice.  They were sacrificed by the leaders of the nations on the altar of greed and power.

“They shall not grow old as we that are left grow old. Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn”

is a message of hope about those who were sacrificed.  They are at peace, at rest; we grow old and weary.  We can take comfort that they no longer have to suffer as we continue to suffer.

“At the going down of the sun and in the morning, We will remember them”

helps us to mourn and remember those who are no longer with us.

Yet the sacrifice continues. Will we not learn?

Wars and famine continue.  Leaders send men and women to fight for ‘us’ against ‘them’. Leaders stoke the fires of self-interest, burning the shoots of love from our hearts.

Even in peace, the weak and poor are sacrificed to the same altar, shot not with bullets but with job losses and cuts.  Those without the power are those who continue to be sacrificed.

It is all meaningless without what comes at the end.  Here is the true hope for us all.

“But where our desires are and our hopes profound,

Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,

To the innermost heart of their own land they are known

As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,

Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,

As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,

To the end, to the end, they remain.”

Jesus forgive us, we don’t know what we are doing.  Change our hearts and fit us for heaven, the end of sacrifice.

Amen

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How to dry your clothes – a comparison of tumble drying methods.

I’ve been investigating tumble dryers to see which is most environmentally friendly. Surprisingly, I’ve not found a good comparison of the basic types, so here’s mine.

There are three main types of tumble dryer: vented, condensing and heat pump. And then there are washer dryers, which combine a washing machine and a condensing dryer.

Rather than looking at brands, colours and gadgetry, let’s look at some basics.

  • Heat is needed to dry the clothes.  This generate humid air that contains that heat energy.
  • Condensing and heat pump dryers both use cool air from outside the tumble dryer to condense the water from the humid air. The heat in the humid air is transferred into the air from outside the dryer, and so heats up the house.
  • Heat pumps are more efficient than heating elements for generating the temperatures to evaporate the water on your clothes and so will use less electricity than condensing driers.  But it will also heat up the house less.
  • Vented dryers and washer dryers (which are an inefficient form of condensing drier) both discard the heat from the humid air outside the house. That’s OK in summer, but in winter that is wasted energy that could be heating your home and saving on heating fuel bills.
    • The vented dryer throws it away via the vent pipe.
    • The washer dryer is worse, it takes in fresh cold water, heats it up with the humid air from drying the clothes and then throws it away down the drain. i.e. it throws the heat away and it wastes lots of water.
  • Vented dryers also suffer from the high likelihood of the vent pipe coming loose and flooding the room with very humid air, often causing mould growth when undetected.

So:

If you heat your house in winter, both vented dryers and washer driers are throwing away heat that you then have to provide with your heating system.  i.e. they are wasteful.

Washer dryers not only waste heat, but they waste water too.

If you heat your house with electricity there is no benefit in winter from a heat pump dryer, as the energy saved in the dryer must be added by your electrical heater.  But it will save you energy in the summer (but why not dry your clothes outside in the summer?)

So, my conclusion is that although heat pump dryers will be marginally better from a total energy usage point of view, the extra complexity is probably not worth it and a condensing dryer is probably the best choice.

And in the summer, use a washing line or internal drying rack.  The internal drying rack has the advantage that the drying of the clothes will actually cool the surrounding air like a primitive air conditioning system.

Image from http://worldartsme.com/

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Christmas – the start of a tragedy?

We have just celebrated Remembrance Day, and we are in the lead up to another day  of remembering an event that modern philosophy would view as tragic.  Jesus Christ was born specifically with the deliberate destiny of dying a horrific death by crucifixion.  The culmination of his life’s purpose was to die, painfully and alone.  And yet Christmas is a joyful event celebrating his birth.  And his life was not tragic, nor heroic, but marvellous and loving.

At first sight this does not make sense, but only if we come at the event with the wrong assumptions.  To make sense we need to grasp that:

  • This was God himself choosing to become human, living as we live, suffering as we suffer, and importantly, doing himself what was required rather than imposing on another.
  • To do this, God must care deeply about us
  • Suffering is not necessarily bad. It can be necessary to achieve the best
  • Death is not the end, but a doorway to something better
  • It is not possible for us to live a perfect life
  • God / Jesus chose to die to allow us to forgive ourselves for our past, and to choose to live his way … even if it may lead to what the world sees as hardship and suffering

There is so much more that we need to learn, that we have forgotten in this modern age.  Use this Christmas to begin your journey of discovery.

 

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Making decisions as a community

Often we have to make decisions as a community; a family, a nation, a team.  How do we go about it?  Usually we will simply ask “what do you think we should do?”  And then we will argue against the other person’s proposal.   When the decision is finally made there is conflict and resentment from those who suggested doing something else.  The results of this approach can be extremely damaging.

For instance, the government ask “do you want to leave the EU?”  Half of us say yes and half of us say no, and so half of us are very upset that we have not been listened to.  The nation is split in two.

Or a local authority will make a proposal to close Children’s Centres and then ask people’s opinion on the proposal, calling it a consultation.  But it is simply a consultation on whether you like the proposal or not.  The consultation doesn’t lead to a better solution, but just to anger from those who will be harmed by the proposal.

The steps we go through, probably unconsciously, when we decide something for ourselves can be summarised as:

  1. What is a the problem
  2. What are the alternative solutions
  3. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each
  4. What do we want to do

But when we try to make decisions as a community our normal approach is:

  1. What do you want to do?
  2. I don’t want to do that, but this.

We end up arguing, simply because trying to decide something without even knowing what problem we are trying to solve.

In both of the examples above, the process could have been different.

For example, the question could have been “What factors are important in deciding whether to remain in the EU, and how important do you think each factor is?”

With the results of this consultation, the government could have framed a proposal for how to deal with the different issues, explained the proposal and the reasoning used to get to it, and then (if necessary) asked for agreement to proceed.  In essence this is requiring the government to carry out ‘completed staff work’ (http://govleaders.org/completed-staff-work.htm) before submitting a proposal for approval.  If they have done their work well, the conclusion would simply need our approval.

Try this approach in your community.  Let me know if it helps.

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More than a General Election

8th June 2017 was so much more than just a General Election.  I am writing this on June 9th with a joyful heart.  I give thanks that Love, Joy, Peace, Kindness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Patience, Goodness and Self Control are not dead. But I am also aware that neither are hatred, anguish, fear, selfishness, aggression, betrayal, impatience, evil and knee-jerk responses.

The things on the first list are “the fruit of the spirit”, those on the second list are natural human responses to situations.  We have all experienced both lists – giving and receiving – and we know that the first list brings life, the second brings despair.

I have learned that the first list is not just fruit of the spirit, it is God within us– whether we recognise it as him or not.  God is love, and love is God.  God is joy and joy is God….  When we experience love, we are experiencing God.

The second list describes the absence of God.  Hatred is the absence of love, anguish is the absence of peace…

Yesterday showed that God is still present in us.  But it also showed that we can behave in very selfish ways. Many of us have selfish habits and responses that we cannot control, and think that we cannot get rid of.  Believe me, we can conquer them! Talk to me privately if you want to know more.

Politics is important, but much of politics is about making the best of a bad job.  It is about managing a dysfunctional society which tends to the natural human response.  But I have a great hope.  I hope that we can bring transformation to society.  Let us strive to exercise and experience Love, Joy, Peace, Kindness, Gentleness, Faithfulness, Patience, Goodness and Self Control.  Let us choose God within us.

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